Pentagon in Damage Control Mode After Detailing Iraq Offensive

The Defense Department angered Iraqi officials by detailing a coming push to reclaim Mosul from the Islamic State without giving Baghdad a heads-up.

An American trainer instructs an Iraqi soldier on approaching and clearing buildings at the Taji base complex, which hosts Iraqi and US troops and is located north of the capital Baghdad, on January 7, 2015. Taji is one of an eventual five sites from which the US and allied countries aim to train 5,000 Iraqi military personnel every six to eight weeks for combat against the Islamic State (IS) jihadist group. AFP/ PHOTO/AHMAD AL-RUBAYE (Photo credit should read AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images)

The Pentagon is walking back its public plans to help Iraqi forces seize Mosul from the Islamic State, chastened by a backlash in Baghdad for failing to inform leaders there before releasing details of the springtime offensive.

Angered Iraqi officials said the unusual level of detail released about the Mosul operation — including that it would likely launch in April or May — created the appearance that the United States is leading the battle, and not Iraqi forces.

“We need all parties to focus on their part in the eradication and defeat of Daesh,” Iraq’s ambassador to the United States, Lukman Faily, told Foreign Policy on Tuesday, Feb. 24. He was referring to the Arabic name for the Islamic State.

Faily also signaled it was a mistake for the Defense Department to have discussed the timing of the offensive with reporters last week at a briefing by a senior U.S. Central Command official who, along with releasing other details, estimated that up to 25,000 Iraqi and Kurdish soldiers would join the fight.

A senior Defense Department official on Tuesday described the disclosures as a “major misstep” but predicted the damage will be short-lived and repaired.

It’s highly unusual for the U.S. military to detail battle plans and, effectively, give its opponents time to mobilize against them. The Centcom briefing, last Thursday, spurred critics on Capitol Hill to accuse Barack Obama’s administration of jeopardizing the offensive’s success. It also risked creating a new rift between Washington and Baghdad, which for years have had an uneasy relationship as Iraqis guard against heavy-handed U.S. influence in their country.

Last week’s disclosure may well turn out to be more of a blunder than an intended strategy by the United States. Now, to repair the damage, U.S. officials are reassuring Iraqi leaders that no timeline is set in stone and that the offensive won’t be launched until local security forces are ready.

Last Friday, both the White House and Defense Secretary Ashton Carter distanced themselves from the Centcom briefing — and the timeline discussed during it.

“This is an offensive that won’t begin until the Iraqi security forces are ready,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters Friday. He said he was not aware that Centcom would be briefing reporters last week, but that this wasn’t unusual, as he doesn’t sign off on every briefing.

Carter told reporters traveling with him to Afghanistan that it’s important that the Mosul offensive “be launched at a time when it can succeed.” He declined to predict when that might be.

Centcom also quickly adjusted course. In an email to FP, Centcom spokesman Maj. Curtis Kellogg said the briefing sought to make clear that “any offensive to retake Mosul was conditions-based and not intended to reflect firm plans.” He described the information revealed as “broad estimates and notional timelines, and revealed nothing of operational value” to the Islamic State.

“As we’ve said from the beginning, any offensive will be Iraqi-led and U.S.-supported, and launched only at a time when it can succeed,” Kellogg said. However, he said, the briefing was not coordinated in advance with Iraqi military officials, nor is that routinely done.

It’s clear that Iraqi officials were unhappy to be caught off guard about an operation they are said to be leading. Over the weekend, Iraqi Defense Minister Khaled al-Obeidi said it’s up to Iraq when the Mosul assault should begin.

“A military official should not reveal the timing of an offensive,” he added.

The Pentagon briefing to more than 20 reporters was conducted by a senior Centcom official who spoke only on condition of anonymity to discuss the operation’s plans more candidly. When asked why he was telegraphing a time frame and the size of the forces needed for the battle, the official said it was to demonstrate the Iraqis’ commitment to the operation.

Since then, defense officials privately have provided various reasons for why that level of detail was given, saying it could push Islamic State fighters to leave the city before the battle begins, perhaps making it a less bloody assault.

Knowing an assault is coming soon could also inspire residents of Mosul — Iraq’s second-largest city and one that was overrun by the Islamic State last summer — to rise up and help the Iraqi troops when they arrive.

The senior Centcom official said the timing of the fight will depend on the readiness of the Iraqi forces, their level of training, and whether they are properly equipped. But, he said, launching a full-scale battle much beyond May, when searing temperatures in Iraq soar well past 100 degrees, and into the mid-June start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, would be “problematic.”

Photo credit: AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images

Kate Brannen is deputy managing editor at Just Security and a contributor to Foreign Policy, where she previously worked as a senior reporter. Twitter: @K8brannen

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